Back to Fundamentals by Terry Schroeder

Fundamentals of the Center: Part 1

Terry Schroeder
US National Men's Team Coach
US Team Won the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics

Volume 3 Number 5February 15, 2011
The Keyword in Real Estate is Location and the Keyword in the sport of Water Polo is Fundamentals!

This month I will begin a four part series on playing the center position.  As I watch various games of water polo being played (whether it be high school, college or international) it seems that playing center is becoming a lost art.  In my opinion, there are fewer pure centers than ever in the game.   Obviously, this is a very critical position for the success of any team at all levels.  It is difficult to run a successful controlled offense without having a solid productive center.  So over the next four months I will share with you some of my thoughts regarding the fundamentals of playing this position.   The four parts covered during this series will be (1) positioning and technique, (2) philosophy and technique, (3) what to do when fronted, and (4) playing the game.
I like to look at the 2 meter line as our line of scrimmage.  One of the main jobs of the center in water polo is to control this so called line of scrimmage.  A good center will be able to play much of the game at or near the 2 meter line.  He/she will be able to hold position deep in the opposing teams end.  If he/she is getting pushed out to the 4 or 5 meter line then the entire offense will be pushed out and therefore less effective.  So what does it take to control the 2 meter line?
First and foremost, playing center takes great leg strength.  A true center should have the strongest legs on the team.  Perhaps the goalies are just as strong but the point is that the centers need to focus on building great leg strength.  I would recommend that your centers do extra leg work.  As a few examples of dry land legwork that I recommend would be running up stadium steps (walk down) and bicycling. In the pool water there are all kinds of drills to build good leg strength.  Building a good base of leg power and endurance is important so drills like holding your arms out of the water (elbows out) for 20 minutes are good as is emptying a 5 gallon water jug by holding it out of the water and letting it drain.  This is a good one because you can begin with the jug half full or less and drain that. Then as you get stronger you can build up to doing more and more until you are able to do the entire jug.  There have been a few athletes I have coached or known that have actually been able to do two 5 gallon water jugs at the same time.  This is pretty impressive and takes a good deal of upper body strength as well because you are holding a 5 gallon jug in each hand. 

Anyway, the absolute best leg drills for building up centers legs are specific drills that mimic playing the game.  I like to have our centers get into a group of three and begin with two players on one side with the other player about 8 meters away. At the end where there are two players one will begin as the center and one will begin as the center defender.  On the whistle the center and center defender begin to push against each other.  The goal is to control that imaginary line of scrimmage.  Let the players battle for 12-15 seconds and then blow the whistle which signals the center to swim towards the third player who has been positioned 8 meters away.  When the center arrives he will go immediately to the center defender position and engage the center.  Both players will push for 12 – 15 seconds once again fighting to control the line of scrimmage.  On the whistle the new center swims to the other end and becomes center defender and you go again.  Each player will play the offensive center position 5 times and then you take a break.  Also have the player who is alone at the one end to eggbeater with his/her hands above his/her head while they wait for their turn.  Done with high intensity this is a great drill which will mimic the work that is needed in the game.  The drill can also be switched up so that the player that just played center defender swims and becomes center at the other end.  My recommendation would be to keep the groups relatively close together (about 8 meters) so that they are spending too much time swimming.  By keeping the swimming down a little you will be able to maintain a higher intensity in the drill.  This is one of my favorites and it will prepare your centers for the game.

The second area of importance for the centers is upper body strength. It is very important to note that this can not be what your centers rely on.  It is important to playing at a high level but if the upper body strength becomes more important then the legs the center is going to get in trouble and be overmatched when he/she gets into a game where the opposing center defender has better leg strength.  With that in mind, I will say that upper body strength is definitely another key for being successful at the center position. Dry land exercises include weights, elastic band work and grappling.  In my opinion, weights to include a pretty good dose of building the muscles that are going to help you hold position.   Since you will be playing the game with your back to you opponent most of the time these muscles that will help you hold your position are the back muscles.  Building up your rhomboids and middle traps will help you hold position.  Exercises for this include the seated rows and the lat pull downs (done behind your head).  You can do one arm rows also and this is very specific to building muscles that will help you hold your position in the water. 

As a general rule, I would suggest doing 2-3 times the amount of pulling exercises when compared to pushing exercises.  This means doing two to three sets of seated rows or pull downs for every set of bench press or flys that you do.   Grappling is another great way to build arm upper body strength and learn how to control your opponent.  This past year we worked with a Jujitsu expert during our dry land training and this seemed to help our centers quite a bit.  The team enjoyed it because it was something different but there was a great deal of value in building upper body strength and learning holds and escapes with your hands.  As far as in the water drill go one of the best is to match up your centers with a center defender.  On the whistle have the center hold position with the defender on one side trying to get around.  Every 5 seconds the defender will jump to the other side and try to get around.  Do the drill for 30 seconds and then rest for 30 before repeating.  If the intensity is high the dill can be repeated 3 – 5 times and both the centers and the center defenders will get a very good and once again game situation exercise. This drill will teach your centers to use both legs and upper body strength appropriately to hold the defender off.  The coach should watch the drill carefully and if the center is committing counter fouls (offensives) then he/she is more than likely relying to heavily on upper body strength. 
Finally, the final part of controlling the line of scrimmage is technique. When all else is equal good technique will always triumph.  All too often young centers in high school and college are just bigger and stronger than most of their opponents so they never really learn good technique.  They rely too much on upper body strength and usually somewhere in their path lies an opponent that is just as strong and can make life very difficult because technique is weak.  Good technique is essential for success at a high level. If you want to be a good and effective center you must build good habits with technique. Here are my tips on good technique for centers.

  1. Back to chest -  Sure there are times when you are battling with the defender that you will be chest to chest or locking arms to fight for position but when it comes down to it you need to be able to see the ball and see the field (the defenders crashing in and your team mates).  If you are playing the game chest to chest you will more than likely be committing offensive foul after offensive foul.  Good technique is back to chest (your back to the defenders chest) and when you play this way with good leg strength and good upper body strength you will have the best chance to control the line of scrimmage, draw more exclusions, score more goals and commit fewer offensive fouls.    This is the technique that officials are looking for from the centers.  This is how a good center must play to be effective.

  2.  Split eggbeater – I have talked about this spilt eggbeater position in earlier articles.  It is a key to holding position as a center.  The split eggbeater position for a center is basically one leg doing eggbeater down below you and the other leg doing eggbeater out in front of you.  Essentially you have one leg holding you up and one leg pushing you back at all times.  The centers upper body is turned approximately 30 – 45 degrees to the center defender (so you are not entirely back to chest but slightly at an angle).  I will explain this later in the article.  In this split eggbeater the legs can always be adjusted to hold you up more (if the defender is really pushing you down) by just dropping the leg in front of you so that it too is helping to hold you up more.  Or you can adjust to a defender that is really leaning on you and pushing you out by bringing the down leg out in front of you a little more and now both legs are helping to hold you back on the line of scrimmage.

  3. Sealing the defender off – If the defender is trying to get around your right side then you will be turned slightly (30 to 45 degrees) into the defender to your right.  Your right leg is down in the split eggbeater and left leg is out in front of you holding the defender back.  The right arm (elbow or triceps area) must find the defenders rib cage and seal him/her off.  This seal can’t be in the middle of the defenders chest.  To truly seal the defender off you need to get all the way to the side of their rib cage. There is no way that they can slide around you when you have this positioning.  It is important that this is done close to your body.  The further away from your body that you are the more likely you will generate offensive fouls.  This is where good upper body strength really helps with good technique.  You are essentially holding the defender off with your arm.   Remember the seated rows and pull down that we talked about earlier – this is where those muscles come into play.  If the defender is on the left side your positioning is just the opposite.  You must now turn your body to the left slightly (30 – 45 degrees) into the defender with your left leg down and your right leg out in front of you.  Your left elbow/triceps area is now finding the defenders rib cage and holding him/her off.

  4. Feeling and adjusting – The centers attention needs to be on working for position where he/she can receive the ball.  This is why a good center is constantly feeling where the defender is.  He/she has an awareness of the defender at all times.  To feel the defender you must be in contact with him/her.  This is also why you must be very strong because to be in contact constantly you must be able to hold the defender off with legs, upper body strength and technique.  You can not be looking back behind you much to find the defender; instead you must rely on your feel.  As the defender moves from side to side you must be able to adjust and hold him/her off.  Let’s say that the defender is on your right side and you have good technique in holding him/her off.  Once he/she jumps to the left side you must immediately adjust.  Here is what that adjustment looks like.  When the defender moves from your right to your left you must immediately rotate over your hips so that your left leg is down and your right leg is out (this was the opposite with the defender on the right side).  You must slide slightly to the left and then seal the defender off with your left elbow/triceps/forearm area.  This seal must be made completely on the defenders side of the rib cage.  If you are finding that when you try to seal them off you are getting your elbow in the middle of the defenders chest rather than the side of their rib cage then you are not sliding enough initially to make your seal.  It takes a great deal of practice.  A good drill to learn this is just to have your centers match up with a center defender and initially both players are going about 50%.  Have the defender jump side to side and try to get around the center while the center tries to slide and seal using the technique described above.  It is important for the centers to get a good feel for what they are doing before the intensity is raised. 

As I said before good technique will beat an evenly matched opponent always so be disciplined and learn how to play the position correctly.  Having a center that can hold the line of scrimmage makes any offensive scheme that much more effective.  We need more centers in our country that play with good technique.  There is no doubt that this is one of the most difficult positions in the game to play but when you couple good leg strength and upper body strength with good technique you will be a much more effective center.  As always please feel free to email me at [email protected] with any questions or comments.

See you at the pool.

Coach Schroeder

WATER POLO PLANET.COM: the Alternative Voice